Britain and America in 2016 – a time for losing friends
Summer 2016 is, it seems, a time for losing friends. As I write this, Britain is going through a traditional heatwave. A few days of intense heat, followed by thunder, lightning, hailstorms and floods. Tempers fray, neighbours fall out with each other. People adopt uncompromising positions about situations that could be resolved with a deep breath and a willingness to discuss rather than lash out. Rigid self-interest trumps compromise and willingness to listen to the other person’s point of view. Relationships that have pottered on for decades can be broken for ever.
The political issues in my country and in the US, from which I’ve just returned after a short visit, have lit forest fires of resentment and anger. I haven’t escaped the madness, as my post shortly after the EU Referendum result was announced shows. Parents are estranged from their children. Old friends shun each other because beliefs and values that remained off limits for the sake of their friendship have suddenly taken centre stage.
A Facebook friend posted a telling quotation to illustrate the point:
Followed by this conversation:
Does it have to be this way? Can we not accept differences any more? Is it impossible for a Remain voter to continue to like and respect a Leave voter? For a Trump supporter to have a beer and a barbecue with a Hillary fan?
I suppose much depends on the nature of the friendship. If it’s based on shared self-interest, and one party is revealed as having very different interests from another, the bond is relatively loose and can fracture easily. If it’s based on deep ties of love and family relationships, provided that the nature of the disagreement doesn’t threaten the interests of either party, it should surely be possible to move on.
My wife and I have just come back from a few days in New York, punctuated by a visit to a quiet seaside town in Rhode Island, where we had been invited by a friend to join a fishing trip. When you visit America in this high summer of political polarity, it’s almost impossible to avoid talking about the upcoming presidential elections, and in particular the candidates on offer. So the subject came up several times. We met supporters of both the candidates, as well as one or two who – like the writer of the Facebook post – couldn’t abide either of them.
Bumper stickers – succinct, trenchant and often extreme – are a pervasive symbol of the great American tradition of free speech. They predate Twitter by many decades. The stickers in the photo above aren’t on the back of some redneck’s car. They belong to the friend who invited us to Rhode Island. He’s a driven, multi-talented urban high achiever. He’s generous with his friendship, and devoted to his wife and two young kids. And he’s proud of his stickers.
Confronted by the uncompromising certainty of the messages, I wasn’t about to take up cudgels on behalf of the presumptive Democrat nominee, even though I believe that she’s a far better option than the guy the Republicans nominated yesterday. After all, how would the average Brit react to an American’s considered opinion on Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn?
I didn’t ask my friend if he is a Trump supporter. He spoke with such certainty about Clinton that I thought better of probing further. It’s his country after all. I did try to explain that we foreigners care about US politics because we have a stake in it. It isn’t just an American affair. We are all affected. Yet still, I felt I could only ask bland questions, not make statements. If I were to try a spot of Socratic dialogue, I worried that he might be offended. End of friendship – pass the hemlock.
In conversations with other people, I did ask about political allegiance.
I met a fisherman who blames all of America’s problems on immigrants and ethnic minorities. He claims that they get preferential treatment from the Federal government. He can’t get a loan to start a small business because he has a property with no mortgage. The banks tell him to take out a mortgage. Yet immigrants with nothing can get loans. How is this fair, he asked?
Will he vote for Trump? “You’re damned right I will”. Yet this was no swivel-eyed white supremacist. He was a charming guy. He sees himself as a decent, public-spirited person. He’s proud of the fact that he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a child cancer charity. He will vote for Trump because Trump is different. He is deeply concerned about Mexican migrants infiltrating of America, taking American jobs. Yet I’d he found a Mexican in trouble, I suspect he would go out of his way to save him.
Clearly, he’s not alone. In Rhode Island, it was interesting to see so many houses with Trump placards in their yards. There were no Hillary placards on view, and a solitary poster supporting Bernie Sanders. This in a state where the governor and the two senators are Democrats. Observations from a small seaside town are hardly a reliable indicator of how the state will vote in the general election. But if you look at the fisherman’s views in the context of a five-minute snippet from a radio interview I heard with a Trump spokesman commenting on his leader’s vice-presidential selection, in which he repeated the phrase “jobs for Americans” five times, you can see that the message is getting home.
Back in New York, I met someone who is the polar opposite of the Rhode Island fisherman. He’s a liberal city dweller who deplores Trump and all his works. As well he might, because he’s a direct beneficiary of Obamacare. As someone who has derived his income from a number of sources over the years, he’s never been able to afford health insurance. Now he can, and thanks to his insurance he’s undergoing a series of tests to monitor a heart condition that he’s been aware of for years. No surprise that he will vote for the candidate who will preserve his new entitlement.
Those two conversations seemed to confirm the stereotypes propagated by political analysts: that Trump speaks for the angry, dispossessed white voters, and Hillary for the ethnic minorities and the liberal urban intelligentsia that voted for Obama.
Yet, as always, there are shades of grey. I heard opinions from a black guy who is in real estate. He was a supporter of Bill Clinton, but says that Hillary has lost the youth vote. He bemoaned his fifteen-year-old son’s lack of focus and ambition, and blamed the entitlement culture that provides support to fractured families and, in his view, doesn’t incentivise those that stick together. A Trump supporter? I didn’t go there, but it was pretty clear that he wasn’t enchanted by Hillary.
What to make of all this?
Perhaps a clue lies in a statement made the other day by a retired CIA agent that President Obama has “lost control of the Middle East”. The implication is that as a default, America should control a region consisting of sovereign nations. The statement very much chimes with Trump’s message: control our borders, build a wall, ban Muslims from entering the country. And it also chimes with the concerns of many of the UK’s Leave voters, as David Aaronovich wrote in yesterday’s London Times:
I was in Wakefield recently and spoke to some Leave voters. They were not closet racists, and immigration was not the main reason they voted to quit the EU. One thing they all said, unprompted, was that they wanted “to take back control”. I asked each of them what they meant by it. All but one said straightaway they didn’t know. “But why,” asked a couple of people, “should we do as the French and Spanish say?” There was not even the slightest perception that having it our way would mean the French and the Spanish having to do what we said. They weren’t British; they had no legitimate desires.
Take control. That phrase was far more powerful than I’d realised, but that doesn’t make it any less utopian. Consider, for example, what has been said this week about our immigration target. Back in 2010 David Cameron’s government said it would bring net migration down to “tens of thousands”. Instead, it brought it up to 330,000. Slightly more than half of this is non-EU migration and we have always theoretically had control over that. We could just have said “no” to any non-EU migrant. Instead we said “yes” to hundreds of thousands.
Uncertainty breeds fear. And fear produces a feeling of not being in control. And lack of control breeds uncertainty. A vicious circle.
In such times, when politicians admit that life is complicated, that there are no easy answers, they are accused of being indecisive. When they change their minds, they are accused of making U-turns – a mortal sin in modern politics.
This, it seems to me, is America today. Fearful. Longing to be told that there are solutions to intractable problems. Not necessarily believing what they are told, but willing to give the guy who comes up with the answers the opportunity to turn his message into reality.
How apt that the man who sells in the American way, with direct promises that provide simple answers, should be the person they turn to in the moment of their perceived crisis. No more Reds under the Bed, but terrorists down Main Street. Immigrants at your porch, taking your job. Donald Trump realises the fundamental truth of US politics. That people buy dreams. And nobody wants to hear about blood, sweat and tears. When the dreamers wake up, they have to deal with real life, just as they have always done. But it’s too late by then. The salesman has closed the deal.
Don’t tell a typical Trump supporter about statistics that show comparisons between deaths from terrorism in America since 9/11, and deaths from domestic gun crime. He won’t listen to you. And in a way he’d be right. Because it’s the impact of the relatively small number of deaths by terrorism that matters. Fear of terrorism has generated a massive cost in terms of increased security, surveillance, gun purchases and insurance premiums, to say nothing of time wasted sitting in four-hour queues at airports. Can ISIS be destroyed militarily, as Trump promises? Unlikely, because ISIS is an idea, not a state. And guns can’t kill ideas.
For those at the political poles, it’s not cool to embrace or even recognise ambiguity any more. To think grey. That’s why so many people hate Barack Obama. He’s the epitome of pragmatism. He, like every president before him, has learned that there are limits to his power. There are some things that he can’t control – such as Congress. His watchword is that “it’s complicated”. But people don’t want to hear that. Not in the US, in Britain, in France or in any other place riven by fear.
Back in the UK, there are many people who will not listen to arguments about immigration. There’s no point in suggesting that it enriches the country, that new blood invigorates and renews, that immigrants pay for themselves. They won’t believe you, because they see evidence to the contrary. They want their country back. No matter that the country they want is long gone, and can’t be revived except in a theme park or an Olympic opening ceremony.
This is an age of “I am right and you are wrong”. Of barricades. Of marines guarding New York train stations. Of solutions to every problem but answers to none of the questions. Of left-wing certainty. Of right-wing certainty. The stronger the opinions, the more they define the person who holds them, and the more likely that their views will influence their choice of friends, and cause them to reject the friendship of those who don’t see things their way.
We know there aren’t easy answers, yet we prefer to pretend there are. And when we vote, we vote for number one. Whatever altruism we show in our private lives, we fail to demonstrate in our support for politicians. What can Trump do for me? What can Brexit do for me? It’s only in extremis that we pull together, and discover that for all our differences, we are British, or American. Think of Britain in World War 2, and America after Pearl Harbour and 9/11. Yet as soon as the crisis passes, that unanimity and sense of common purpose unravels, and the blame game begins. We revert to self-interest. Thus it ever will be.
The crisis in America that is causing such conflict and polarity is not existential. Nor are is Britain’s woes. Compared with many nations, we are the lucky ones. Rather, our problems are the result of a slow erosion of national self-confidence, partly as a result of the 2008 financial crisis, partly because of globalisation, and partly because of the disruptive effect of technology. Jobs are changing and disappearing. In both countries there are sections of society that feel excluded and dispossessed. And those who are in the economic mainstream fear that they will be next. For many, life has become a game of musical chairs.
What’s to be done? Plenty – enough to fill a thousand posts. But for now, here are a few general observations:
First, we should stop expecting too much of our politicians. They are human. They make mistakes. They should be able to change their minds without being subjected to a barrage of abuse.
Second, we should appreciate and praise them when they get things right, even if we disagree with their political orientation. It’s telling that people only eulogise politicians when they leave office, as has been the case with David Cameron.
Third, we should accept that there is a limit to what a single nation can control, both within and beyond its borders – even one as large and powerful as the United States. Any politician who suggests otherwise is being disingenuous.
Fourth, we should learn to accept what we cannot change. I deplore Brexit, but it will happen, and I’m prepared to live with the consequences. To do otherwise would be counterproductive. “Yes we can” is fine as a rallying cry. But we need to recognise that there are limits to what we can achieve, and live with them. Or otherwise, we need to make different things happen that might achieve the same result.
Fifth, we should remember that idealists rarely make the most effective politicians. The most significant changes in both countries over the past fifty years – Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights programme and Margaret Thatcher’s reforms – were pushed through not by saints, but by cunning, ruthless and often nasty people who knew how to bully, manipulate and cajole.
And finally, we should understand that the problems facing both countries cannot be solved with quick fixes. They are fundamental, and in some cases will take a generation or more to solve. Perhaps they are insoluble.
As for friendship, I can’t see an end to the current phenomenon until we enter more settled times. I don’t see that happening any time soon. In fact I wouldn’t be at all surprised if in the near future we have to live through another catastrophe that causes unity through adversity before we return to laissez-faire. Ultimately though, the answer is in our hearts. And perhaps that’s where Thomas Jefferson comes in.
I lost a friend this week – or at least it looks that way. Not because of politics, religion or philosophy. Not because either of us is a bad person, but because my friend showed a side of himself that I’d never seen before, and which I didn’t like. This led me to conclude that he’s not the person I thought he was. Perhaps he would say the same of me. I’m very sad about the situation, but that’s how it can often be with friendships. Like reputations, you enjoy them for many years, and in a second they’re gone. Can former friends be reconciled? Of course, but it’s always different.
Something the Leavers, the Brexiteers, the Trump supporters and the Hillary fans need to think about before their animosity causes them to step over the brink into personal hostility.